Voucher Battlegrounds

by Fr. Charles Irvin

June 1998

Michigan, I fearlessly forecast, will soon become one of America’s great battlegrounds over school voucher proposals. The anti-voucher, anti-choice people who appear to be horrified at the idea that poor, inner-city, nonwhite kids may be given real educational choices are stepping up their war of words in op-ed columns attacking pro-choice educational voucher proposals. Immediately following the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision allowing inner-city Milwaukee parents real educational choices via vouchers, vouchers which could be used even when the kids went to parochial schools, opinion columnists syndicated out of New York began writing their columns attacking the Court’s decision.

One columnist appearing in the Detroit Free Press (which, of course, supports her views) wrote: “Most private schools do not provide special education, nor do they focus on troubled or hard-to-serve students. They are happy with the cream of the crop.” That statement, dear folks, is simply a lie. It is a deliberate falsification of the data and evidence showing what parochial schools are actually doing, and if the columnist had even superficially looked into what’s happening in parochial schools she would know it.

Lest we forget, these same anti-voucher forces have in the past made sure that any and all remedial reading programs, school psychological counseling programs, or special education programs funded by tax dollars, would be prohibited in religiously based schools. Any and all help for parents whose children were in parochial schools was put under fire by them, thus forcing the extra costs on parochial school parents. Time and time again, all attempts to help non-sectarian programs in parochial schools have been turned back under a dogmatic invocation of the so-called “Wall of Separation Between Church and State.”

Let’s be perfectly clear, the public school establishment asserts that all educational dollars belong to them and that private and parochial schools have to “pay their own way.” This allows the anti-voucher forces to then turn around and claim that only the affluent can afford to send their kids to parochial schools, the public schools being “for everyone.” If parochial schools can’t provide the special educational and non-sectarian special services provided in public schools, we ought to ask why they are denied these programs, rather than implying that parochial schools don’t care about hard-to-serve, “difficult” and “educationally challenged” poor children. One needs also to simply look at the facts and check the record in terms of the postgraduate performance records of children coming out parochial schools vis-a-vis their peers who have graduated from nearby public schools. Who, after all of the rhetoric is exhausted, is really being helped?

In all candor, I have to inform you that this same syndicated columnist was quite open and honest in her position. She went on to write that school-choice vouchers are “a direct attack on public schools.” Well, she is entitled to her opinion, of course, but hopefully the rest of us will ask: Why is providing a real educational choice an attack on a system that offers no choice? Why is choice such a threat to public school interests? Is providing children an opportunity to make a real choice somehow “a direct attack”? Hardly, unless one’s monopolistic interests are thereby threatened.

Inner-city pastors of a number of Protestant denominations (non-affluent and nonwhite) are taking a serious look at the educational voucher proposal and seeing in it a way to improve the lives of both parents and children in their congregations. They also are clearheaded enough to see that there are many so-called white “liberals” who don’t want to lose their status in handing down help to the poor. After all, when the poor get out of the ghetto, what will be left for the Liberal Agenda? What electoral rhetoric will remain for them in order to rail against those forces who advocate standing on one’s own two feet rather than kneeling for hand-me-downs?

Real poverty is the denial of access to power, particularly the power to shape one’s one educational opportunities.